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http://wordpress.org/?v=3.9.1 Lincoln and War Powers http://housedivided.dickinson.edu/sites/emancipation/2013/02/22/lincoln-and-war-powers/ http://housedivided.dickinson.edu/sites/emancipation/2013/02/22/lincoln-and-war-powers/#comments Fri, 22 Feb 2013 16:07:03 +0000 http://housedivided.dickinson.edu/sites/emancipation/?p=1310 Continue reading ]]>                                    GO TO “LINCOLN” MOVIE TEACHER’S GUIDE


Scene 7Early in the “Lincoln” movie (Scene 7), President Lincoln provides a lengthy defense of his wartime emancipation policy to his Cabinet when he encounters some objections to the move toward abolition from Secretary of Interior John P. Usher.  Read the following excerpt closely and try to identify Lincoln’s key arguments:



I decided that the Constitution gives me war powers, but no one
knows just exactly what those powers are. Some say they don’t
exist. I don’t know. I decided I needed them to exist to uphold my
oath to protect the Constitution, which I decided meant that I could
take the rebels’ slaves from ‘em as property confiscated in war. That
might recommend to suspicion that I agree with the rebs that their
slaves are property in the first place. Of course I don’t, never
have, I’m glad to see any man free, and if calling a man property, or
war contraband, does the trick… Why I caught at the opportunity.

Now here’s where it gets truly slippery. I use the law allowing
for the seizure of property in a war knowing it applies only to the
property of governments and citizens of belligerent nations.

But the South ain’t a nation, that’s why I can’t negotiate with
’em. So if in fact the Negroes are property according to law, have I
the right to take the rebels’ property from ‘em, if I insist
they’re rebels only, and not citizens of a belligerent country?
And slipperier still: I maintain it ain’t our actual Southern states in
rebellion, but only the rebels living in those states, the laws of
which states remain in force. The laws of which states remain in
force. That means, that since it’s states’ laws that determine whether
Negroes can be sold as slaves, as property – the Federal government
doesn’t have a say in that, least not yet – (a glance at  Seward,
then:)- then Negroes in those states are slaves, hence property, hence my
war powers allow me to confiscate ‘em as such. So I confiscated ‘em.
But if I’m a respecter of states’ laws, how then can I legally free
‘em with my Proclamation, as I done, unless I’m cancelling states’
laws? I felt the war demanded it; my oath demanded it; I felt right
with myself; and I hoped it was legal to do it, I’m hoping still.

(Tony Kushner, “Lincoln,” p. 26-7)



After you have organized an outline or chart of Lincoln’s key arguments in this passage, try to answer the following questions:

1.  In the context of the Civil War, what is the meaning of the following words or phrases:  war powers, confiscation, contraband, and belligerent?  Are there other words in the excerpt that need definition?

2.  How does Lincoln describe the process which was leading him to conclude that only a constitutional amendment could truly end slavery in the United States?

3.  Why was the problem of ending slavery during the Civil War so “slippery” as Lincoln describes it?  Were the obstacles that Lincoln is describing here mainly political, legal or social?


The passage attributed to Lincoln in this script is not something he actually said, but has been imagined by the scriptwriter Tony Kushner to represent various arguments in favor of emancipation policy that President Lincoln and his supporters used during the course of the Civil War.  Consider the following real quotations from Abraham Lincoln and compose a short informational essay that tries to explain how the script seems to be summarizing aspects of these historical statements:

Abraham Lincoln’s First Inaugural Address, March 4, 1861

“Apprehension seems to exist among the people of the Southern States that by the accession of a Republican Administration their property and their peace and personal security are to be endangered. There has never been any reasonable cause for such apprehension. Indeed, the most ample evidence to the contrary has all the while existed and been open to their inspection. It is found in nearly all the published speeches of him who now addresses you. I do but quote from one of those speeches when I declare that—

I have no purpose, directly or indirectly, to interfere with the institution of slavery in the States where it exists. I believe I have no lawful right to do so, and I have no inclination to do so.

Abraham Lincoln’s Special Message to Congress, July 4, 1861

“Lest there be some uneasiness in the minds of candid men as to what is to be the course of the Government towards the southern States after the rebellion shall have been suppressed, the Executive deems it proper to say, it will be his purpose then, as ever, to be guided by the Constitution and the laws; and that he probably will have no different understanding of the powers and duties of the Federal Government relative to the rights of the States and the people, under the Constitution than that expressed in the inaugural address.”

Abraham Lincoln to James C. Conkling, August 26, 1863

“I think the constitution invests its Commander-in-chief, with the law of war, in time of war. The most that can be said, if so much, is, that slaves are property. Is there–has there ever been–any question that by the law of war, property, both of enemies and friends, may be taken when needed? And is it not needed whenever taking it, helps us, or hurts the enemy?”   

Abraham Lincoln to Albert Hodges, April 4, 1864

“I have done no official act in mere deference to my abstract judgment and feeling on slavery. I did understand however, that my oath to preserve the constitution to the best of my ability, imposed upon me the duty of preserving, by every indispensable means, that government—that nation—of which that constitution was the organic law. Was it possible to lose the nation, and yet preserve the constitution? By general law life and limb must be protected; yet often a limb must be amputated to save a life; but a life is never wisely given to save a limb. I felt that measures, otherwise unconstitutional, might become lawful, by becoming indispensable to the preservation of the constitution, through the preservation of the nation. Right or wrong, I assumed this ground, and now avow it.”


From Matthew Pinsker, Director, House Divided Project:

Not every historian would accept the way Tony Kushner conveys Lincoln’s views.  One of the biggest arguments concerns this question of “confiscating” slaves as property in order to free them.  According to the script, Lincoln denies that slaves should ever be considered as property but admits that he “caught at the opportunity” in order to set in motion his emancipation policy.   On the surface, this appears to be what he wrote to Conkling in 1863 (“The most that can be said, if so much, is, that slaves are property,”) but a careful reading of that document –especially in context– suggests that was not what he believed or what he actually did –but rather he was saying this was what even his political enemies had to concede if that was truly their belief (“The most that can be said…”).

What the script does not quite have the space to explain is that “confiscation” was a congressional policy, created in two separate laws (August 6, 1861 and July 17, 1862) that ultimately authorized the president to make rebel-owned slaves “forever free.”  This was the real trigger for Lincoln’s initial emancipation decision in July 1862. However, congressional confiscation made a careful distinction between punishing rebels by confiscating their real property (such as their plantations) and by freeing their slaves.  The confiscation law treated these enslaved people not as property but explicitly as “captives of war.”  In other words, federal law never recognized the principle of property in man.  Only states laws did that.  This is a critical insight made clear in James Oakes’s book, Freedom National (2012) and which is documented here in this Emancipation Digital Classroom.   This also helps explain why the Emancipation Proclamation refers to “persons held as slaves,” and does nothing to recognize them as property or to invoke asset forfeiture law in order to “seize” them.  Instead, the proclamation calls their freedom “an act of justice,” and addresses them directly as people with natural rights.  See this video from Matthew Pinsker for a more complete explanation of that point.

The script also appears to make a mistake by having Lincoln assert that the laws of the states in rebellion remained “in force.”  This was never his view.  In fact, almost all of the extraordinary presidential measures he embraced from the beginning of the war until its conclusion –whether it was calling forth the militias, suspending habeas corpus, emancipating slaves, or setting conditions for reconstruction– were done in the name of substituting executive action for laws that were clearly not in force.  When President Lincoln invoked the international “laws of war” as Commander-in-Chief, he was able to do so to suppress a domestic rebellion.  Some measures –such as setting foot a blockade– did suggest implicit recognition of Confederate sovereignty– but even as Lincoln was denying that sovereignty in public, he was never claiming to be bound by southern state laws during a time of armed rebellion.  According to Lincoln, Confederate states were neither independent of nor controlled by the federal government during the Civil War.  They were quite literally “in rebellion” and subject to the laws of war.


What do you think about these sometimes highly technical arguments over the Constitution and international law during times of war?  Do they sound like unnecessary legal hair-splitting? Or does the depth and complexity of this debate reflect the enduring importance of constitutional law in American history?

Common Core Alignments

Grades 6-8

  • CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RH.6-8.1 Cite specific textual evidence to support analysis of primary and secondary sources.
  • CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RH.6-8.2 Determine the central ideas or information of a primary or secondary source; provide an accurate summary of the source distinct from prior knowledge or opinions.
  • CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RH.6-8.3 Identify key steps in a text’s description of a process related to history/social studies (e.g., how a bill becomes law, how interest rates are raised or lowered).

Grades 9-10

  • CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RH.9-10.1 Cite specific textual evidence to support analysis of primary and secondary sources, attending to such features as the date and origin of the information.
  • CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RH.9-10.4 Determine the meaning of words and phrases as they are used in a text, including vocabulary describing political, social, or economic aspects of history/social science.
  • CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RH.9-10.5 Analyze how a text uses structure to emphasize key points or advance an explanation or analysis.
  • CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RH.9-10.6 Compare the point of view of two or more authors for how they treat the same or similar topics, including which details they include and emphasize in their respective accounts.

Grades 11-12

  • CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RH.11-12.1 Cite specific textual evidence to support analysis of primary and secondary sources, connecting insights gained from specific details to an understanding of the text as a whole.
  • CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RH.11-12.2 Determine the central ideas or information of a primary or secondary source; provide an accurate summary that makes clear the relationships among the key details and ideas.
  • CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RH.11-12.3 Evaluate various explanations for actions or events and determine which explanation best accords with textual evidence, acknowledging where the text leaves matters uncertain.




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Warning: Artists at Work http://housedivided.dickinson.edu/sites/emancipation/2013/02/14/warning-artists-at-work/ http://housedivided.dickinson.edu/sites/emancipation/2013/02/14/warning-artists-at-work/#comments Thu, 14 Feb 2013 15:45:53 +0000 http://housedivided.dickinson.edu/sites/emancipation/?p=1228 Continue reading ]]> By Matthew Pinsker                                 GO TO “LINCOLN” MOVIE TEACHER’S GUIDE


Steven Spielberg

Steven Spielberg

A film like Steven Spielberg’s “Lincoln” (2012) is considered a work of fiction even though it is inspired by historical events and adapted from a work of history (Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Team of Rivals).  The reason that the movie itself cannot (or at least should not) be filed under “non-fiction” is because the figures involved in the production take significant artistic license in order to create engaging drama.  They invent characters, dialogue, and scenes.  They rearrange chronology.  They borrow from various types of sources without documenting them in citations.  And they often take big interpretive leaps of faith based more on instinct than evidence.  Yet artists such as scriptwriter Tony Kushner, filmmaker Steven Spielberg or actors such as Daniel Day-Lewis, can still go to great lengths (as they have in this movie) to try to “get it right” by recreating period details and moods.  The result, however, is sometimes confusing for audiences –especially for serious students– who  want to know what is “real” and what is invented.  Although the list below doesn’t claim to establish “what really happened” with regard to the Thirteenth Amendment (historians themselves disagree over that one), it does attempt to highlight some of the most important examples where the “Lincoln” filmmakers invoked their most sweeping use of “artistic license.”  Also, please note that the scene numbers refer to the scene-by-scene summary created for this guide.

Remembering Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address (Scene 1)

The film opens in the most artistic way possible –a cinematic version of the Lincoln Memorial with Lincoln  (Daniel Day-Lewis) seated (in this case at the Washington Naval Yard) as four soldiers (two black, two white –but all four fictional characters) gather around him and in the course of their conversation end up reciting portions of the Gettysburg Address.  That ten-sentence speech has become a sacred national text that American school children have memorized for generations, but it was not one that Americans were reciting to each other in January 1865.  There was not even yet an established single text for the address –the version quoted by the soldiers (the so-called “Bliss Copy” which appears on the wall of the Memorial) was not the one Lincoln actually delivered at Gettysburg (to see the differences, which are generally minor, click here). The scene is almost totally implausible from a strictly historical perspective, but it does create a memorable dramatic framework for the movie –especially when you realize that the film  ends with a recreation of Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address, the other text that graces the wall of the Lincoln Memorial. One additional footnote:  the flashback of brutal combat that actually opens the movie, as related by black soldier Pvt. Harold Green (a fictional character), refers to a real Civil War engagement (Battle of Jenkins Ferry, April 30, 1864), although its gruesome hand-to-hand killing was not typical for that war and the idea that Green would have fought in Arkansas with the 116th US Colored Infantry and then rejoined the Union army later and transferred east with the 5th Massachusetts Cavalry is highly unlikely.

Lincoln’s Dream (Scene 2)

The dream that Abraham Lincoln describes to Mary Lincoln derives not from her papers, but rather from an account that appears in the diary of Gideon Welles, who served as Lincoln’s secretary of navy.  His entry, dated April 14, 1865 (but written afterward) describes the president telling his cabinet officers on the day that he was assassinated of a dream where “he seemed to be in some singular, indescribable vessel, and that he was moving with great rapidity towards an indefinite shore.”  He claimed that he had this dream before “nearly every great and important event of the War.”  Tony Kushner’s script alters the language of this account and puts it into an exchange between husband and wife preceding a “revelation” about his intention to fight for passage of an amendment to abolish slavery during the January 1865 lame duck session of Congress.  Mary Lincoln (Sally Fields) acts shocked by this news and argues against it, saying to her husband:

“No one’s loved as much as you, no one’s ever been loved so much, by the people, you might do anything now. Don’t, don’t waste that power on an amendment bill that’s sure of defeat.”

Yet in reality, Lincoln had already made public his plans to push for a January vote.  His annual message to Congress in December 1864 following landslide election victories for the Republican / Union party predicted with great confidence that “the next Congress will pass the measure [abolishing slavery] if this does not” and so suggested that since there was “only a question of time as to when the proposed amendment will go to the States” why “may we not agree that the sooner the better?”  The tone of this passage is almost taunting.  This is precisely how “artistic license” works in Hollywood movies.  Filmmakers must establish compelling conflicts at the outset and then work to resolve them with a suspenseful plot that also reveals the essential nature of their main characters.  History is messier.  So, even though the initial scene establishing the fundamental premise of this movie is full of interesting and historically-minded word choices (Daniel Day-Lewis as Lincoln subtly quotes Shakespeare by calling himself a “king of infinite space” and uses very Lincolnian-sounding phrases such as “flubdubs” and “shindy”) the gist of the scene conflates and confuses some of the fundamental political realities of that moment.

Republican Party Politics (Scenes 4-9)

The movie actually conflates or pushes together several political conflicts from the end of the war that historians usually treat separately. There were deep divisions, for example, within the Republican Party during the 1860s, traditionally identified as a split between Radicals and Conservatives (though many historians  object to these broad categories), but those factions were not arguing over abolition by January 1865 as the movie depicts in its opening scenes.  The early scenes that show figures such as Secretary of State William Henry Seward, Republican Party elder statesman Francis Preston Blair, Sr., and Radical congressmen James Ashley and Thaddeus Stevens in conversation with each other and the president, take a number of critical liberties to help make complicated partisan in-fighting seem more understandable for a modern movie audience.

First and most important, nobody would  have been surprised by the President’s support for a January vote on the constitutional amendment.  He had already announced it publicly in December.  Second, the greatest cause of division among Republicans in early 1865 was over Reconstruction policy, not abolition, with Blair and other conservative figures arrayed against radicals such as Ashley and Stevens, over questions regarding not only the future of ex-slaves but also ex-Confederates.  The radicals, especially Stevens, wanted a social revolution in the South.  The conservatives preferred national reconciliation even at the cost of social change. The question of exactly where Lincoln and Seward stood in this reconstruction debate (and in relation to each other) remains a topic of disagreement among historians.  But the idea that Seward would lecture Lincoln on Republican party divisions (Scene 4) or that the president would be forced to defend his wartime emancipation policy in early 1865 against vigorous objections from some of his cabinet (Scene 7) is almost absurd.

Scene 8Consider this incongruity:  in the movie, Seward (David Strathairn) asks Lincoln, “since when has our party unanimously supported anything?”  and yet the correct historical answer to that question is simply the last time the abolition amendment appeared in the House (June 1864) when the ONLY Republican to vote against it was Rep. James Ashley, the sponsor, who did so on technical grounds so that he could bring it back later for reconsideration.  By the end of the war, Republicans supported the abolition of slavery –it was a central plank of their party platform in the 1864 election and part of the basis for their landslide victories in November.  Border states such as Maryland and Missouri were already in the process of abolishing slavery on their own –with full Republican support. Montgomery Blair had been “pushed out” of the president’s cabinet in September 1864 as part of a deal with radicals –as the movie suggests– but Preston Blair (Hal Holbrook) surely never told Lincoln, as he does in the film: “We can’t tell our people they can vote yes on abolishing slavery unless at the same time we can tell ‘em that you’re seeking a negotiated peace.”  It’s not even entirely clear that the elderly and highly controversial Blair had any “people” left in the House now that his other son Frank (Francis Preston Blair, Jr.), a former congressman, was back in the Union army.

More important, the so-called Conservative Republicans were not in any sense the obstacle to passage of the amendment.  The challenge for the amendment’s backers was to win over Democratic votes, presumably lame duck Democratic votes –not hold together Republicans (at least not on this question). Finally, it’s worth noting that the curious scene involving the White House visit from Mr. and Mrs Jolly of Jefferson City, Missouri is wholly invented (Scene 5).  Even their congressman –”Beanpole” Burton– is fictional.  This is a perfectly fair use of artistic license, because the imaginary conversation reveals the complicated –and quite real– ambivalence of many Unionists regarding the future of race relations after slavery, but it does seem like a strange choice for filmmakers when there was an important Missouri Unionist congressman named James S. Rollins, whom Lincoln did personally lobby to support this amendment.  Why Rollins gets omitted from the movie is difficult to explain.

The Seward Lobby (Scenes 10, 11, 13, 22, 23, 33, 35)

Although “Lincoln” is a serious movie with a high moral purpose, there is still a great deal of comic relief provided mostly by an amusing trio of corrupt lobbyists.  What students might find confusing about these figures, however, is that despite the fact that they were “real” men, the movie either totally invents or sometimes just thoroughly rearranges their actual activities.  Robert Latham (John Hawkes), Richard Schell (Tim Blake Nelson), and William N. Bilbo (James Spader) were three nineteenth-century political figures authorized by Secretary of State William Henry Seward in the winter of 1864-65 to help promote passage of what ultimately became the Thirteenth Amendment.  Historians typically describe these men as the “Seward Lobby” but disagree over exactly how they lobbied for the amendment and to what degree President Lincoln was involved with or aware of their activities.  The most in-depth study of the lobbying effort appeared in 1963 and is available in full-text at the Internet Archive.  See especially the first chapter (“The Seward Lobby and the Thirteenth Amendment”) in LaWanda and John H. Cox, Politics, Principle, & Prejudice, 1865-66 (1963).

Scene 10What you will discover by reading this remarkable account is that Latham and Schell were in fact old friends of  Seward’s and that Bilbo (James Spader) was a prominent southern attorney and businessman who had switched sides during the war and who was “known for his elaborate waistcoats, his long sideburns, and his elegant manners” (Cox and Cox, p. 6).  Bilbo was prominent enough that he actually met with President Lincoln just after the 1864 election and corresponded with him later.  Yet the movie introduces these characters as seedy outsiders, completely unknown to the president and forced to rent rooms in a “squirrel-infested attic,” as James Spader puts it memorably (Scene 10), because Seward was keeping them on such a tight retainer.  That might be how lobbyists work today –on retainer and often in secret– but it wasn’t quite true then.  After passage of the amendment, Latham, a major Wall Street investor (who later went bankrupt following the Panic of 1873), replied indignantly to an attempt by Seward to reimburse the men for their expenses.  He wrote in a letter to Seward’s son Frederick, “A Gentleman called to have me give an acct of expenses.  Which amt to nothing,”  adding, “At any time that I can be of service to the Hon Sec of State or yourself I will do all I can but at my own expence,” (Cox and Cox, p. 24).

Yet the Spielberg movie portrays the men in much different light –as rough, political guns-for-hire who curse freely (Bilbo / Spader even says directly to President Lincoln at one point, “Well, I’ll be fucked.”) and who spread bribes easily.  The movie makers invent a series of quick scenes involving fictional congressmen and the bribes that it takes to sway them.  The most notable example of this corruption involves Rep. Clay Hawkins of Ohio (Walton Goggins) who Bilbo / Spader initially switched with the promise of a postmastership in Millersburg, Ohio.  The movie actually has President Lincoln himself commenting cynically on this news by remarking, “He’s selling himself cheap, ain’t he?” (Scene 13).  All of this is made up.  There was a single lame duck Democratic congressman from Ohio who switched his vote in favor of the antislavery amendment in January 1865 but his name was Wells A. Hutchins and he did not receive any post-war patronage appointment in the federal government.  Nor was he much recognizable in the character of Clay Hawkins.  In real life, Hutchins was a reasonably tough, independent-minded Democrat who had voted to support the abolition of slavery in the District of Columbia in 1862 and who had backed the Lincoln Administration on several controversial issues during the war, including the suspension of habeas corpus or civil liberties –an issue that was especially unpopular among Ohio Democrats.   Understanding this background helps explain why he was a lame duck in 1865 and why he was a natural target for supporting the amendment. It had nothing to do with hunting, drinking or patronage.

Equally important from a strictly historical perspective, there’s no evidence connecting the Seward lobbyists to Hutchins or any Democrat outside of the eastern states.  According to LaWanda and John Cox, the lobbyists, especially Bilbo, spent most of their time in New York (not Washington) generally attempting to persuade influential Democratic newspapers (such as the New York World) and the state’s Democratic governor (Horatio Seymour) to send signals that would allow wavering lame duck Democrats to feel more confident about switching their votes.

That is why in some ways the most telling example of “artistic license,” perhaps in the whole film, involves an amusing race between Bilbo / Spader and White House aide John Hay (Joseph Cross) during the day of the final House vote on January 31, 1865.  The movie has the two men racing to get Lincoln’s response to reports of impending peace talks –a leak that threatens to jeopardize the entire lobbying effort.  The younger Hay beats out the noticeably winded Bilbo, and then President Lincoln proceeds to draft an evasive reply that allows the final roll call to proceed and victory to be achieved.  It is a dramatic climax with political machinations and social justice converging in ways that illustrate the film’s major insight about Lincoln –that he understood how a flawed, messy democratic process can be bent toward  profoundly moral consequences.  However, in real life, Bilbo was in New York at the time of the vote.  There was actually an evasive message from the president (more on that below) but no footrace from the Capitol and no significant presence in Washington by the Seward lobbyists during the final fight to win House passage of the amendment.

Thaddeus Stevens and the Radicals (Scenes 9, 10, 17, 28, 34, 39, 42, 43)

Scene 9In the scene which introduces the audience to Rep. Thaddeus Stevens (R, PA), the chairman of the House Committee of Ways and Means, the script describes the setting in Stevens’ Capitol Hill office as “redolent of politics, ideology (a bust of Robespierre, a print of Tom Paine), long occupancy and hard work” (p. 30).  For historians, such characterizations seem heavy-handed and somewhat out-of-date.  Older generations of scholars sometimes referred to the radicals as “Jacobins” (borrowing insulting language from the period) and fixated on the eminently quotable and always crusty Stevens, but in recent years, historians have tried to be more attentive to the complexities of wartime partisanship.  For example, the fictional character in the movie named Asa Vintner Litton (Stephen Spinella), described in the script as a lame duck radical Republican from Maryland, seems to be based on Rep. Henry Winter Davis.  Yet Davis, despite his radical reputation, had a complicated view about the antislavery amendment.  He had missed the June 1864 vote on the amendment (intentionally, according to historian Michael Vorenberg) because he considered his omnibus reconstruction plan (the controversial Wade-Davis Bill, which Lincoln pocket-vetoed that summer) preferable to the separate measures for abolition and reconstruction that had been introduced by Rep. James Ashley (R, Ohio) and were being debated again in January 1865.  In the film, however, Rep. Litton is the embodiment of pure radicalism and believes more deeply in Ashley’s amendment than anybody else –even in some ways Ashley himself– calling it “abolition’s best legal prayer.”

The film plays fast-and-loose in such minor ways with radical figures, mainly for the sake of simplicity but also sometimes it appears just out of error.  “Bluff” Wade is a character in the script identified as a Republican senator from Massachusetts who somewhat implausibly attends the House Republican strategy sessions in Stevens’s office.  Presumably, the intention was to make this figure Benjamin “Bluff” Wade, the Republican radical  (and Davis’s partner in his failed Reconstruction bill), who was born in Massachusetts but served as a Republican senator from Ohio.

For the sake of simplicity, the film also makes Thaddeus Stevens the central radical figure organizing the amendment’s passage, even more so than the measure’s sponsor, Ashley.  This is not how many historians characterize Stevens’s role.  He was an important figure, but probably not the central one in securing passage of the Thirteenth Amendment.  Stevens had only four index entries in Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Team of Rivals (2005), a nearly 800-page book from which the screenplay was adapted.  Stevens plays a somewhat larger role in Michael Vorenberg’s more compact Final Freedom (2001) with seven index entries but even there he is clearly superseded by other figures such as Ashley and Senator Lyman Trumbull (R, IL), who is not even mentioned in the film.  The latest and most comprehensive study of wartime abolition policies –James Oakes’s Freedom National (2012)– contains a mere six index entries for Stevens.

By contrast, Stevens (Tommy Lee Jones) has about 45 speaking parts in the Spielberg film, apparently second only to Abraham Lincoln.  He looms large as a counter-weight to the president  –Lincoln’s near opposite in both style and policy.  Their confrontation in the White House kitchen (Scene 17) is one of the movie’s most pivotal scenes and also arguably one of its most historically implausible.  Besides the unlikely setting, scriptwriter Tony Kushner seems to be investing many older –and quite hostile– ideas about Stevens into this conversation which contrasts Lincoln’s calculated, pragmatic approach to Stevens’s rigid, ideological worldview.  He actually has Stevens / Jones saying at one point, in defense of his sweeping plans for revolutionizing the South,  “Ah, shit on the people and what they want and what they are ready for!  I don’t give a goddamn about the people and what they want!  This is the face of someone who has fought long and hard for the good of the people without caring much for any of ‘em.”   Such lines (minus the cursing) would be perfectly at home in the captions of D.W. Griffith’s ground-breaking and controversial silent film, “Birth of A Nation” (1915).  Griffith’s film depicted Reconstruction as an utter failure in part because of the unyielding attitudes of radicals like Austin Stoneman (the character based upon Stevens).  In the kitchen debate between Lincoln and Stevens, scriptwriter Kushner seems to embrace elements of this view.  He told NPR, for instance, “The abuse of the South after they were defeated was a catastrophe, and helped lead to just unimaginable, untellable human suffering.”

Still, Kushner’s / Spielberg’s representation of Stevens contains important nuances that save Tommy Lee Jones’s performance from being merely emblematic of the so-called “Lost Cause.”   The gripping scene during the House debates where Stevens / Jones restricts himself to endorsing “equality before the law” and nothing more underscores the pragmatic considerations that often motivated Radicals, especially during this moment in the Civil War.  However, the scene is also full of small-bore examples of artistic license.  The excerpts from the House debates are not real quotations from the Congressional Globe or even apparently from the sometimes more descriptive newspaper accounts.  Instead, they appear to be a creative collage of materials pulled together by Tony Kushner from a variety of secondary sources.  Michael Vorenberg, for example, quotes Stevens announcing during a different debate  –as part of a concerted radical strategy during this period to avoid inflammatory questions about racial equality — that he “never held to that doctrine of negro equality … not equality in all things -simply before the laws, nothing else.”  That was on January 5, 1865 –ten days before the movie has Lincoln lecturing Stevens about pragmatism in the White House kitchen and three weeks before it has the congressman saying something similar on the floor of the House (Scene 28).  In the movie, Stevens / Jones supposedly states on January 27, 1865 that, “I don’t hold with equality in all things only with equality before the law and Scene 32nothing more.”  This prompts Mary Lincoln in the House gallery to remark to her black dressmaker, Elizabeth Keckley, “Who’d ever guessed that old nightmare capable of such control?”  To this, Keckley excuses herself angrily and leaves.  Yet there’s no evidence from any contemporary report or from Keckley’s own recollection that she and Mary Lincoln ever attended the House debates.  Instead, what the filmmakers have done here by rearranging events and by inventing selected details is to increase the drama and ultimately to attribute Stevens’s “conversion” to Lincoln’s intervention.  Historical accounts give Lincoln no such credit, nor do they present a narrative pulsating with such drama.

One final footnote to the presentation of Thaddeus Stevens concerns the filmmakers’ curious decision to place him in bed with his mixed-race housekeeper, Lydia Hamilton Smith, near the very end of the film.  This is a reference to widely held suspicion (among contemporaries and historians) that Stevens had a romantic relationship with Smith who stayed with him both in Lancaster and in Washington.  Stevens himself never publicly acknowledged this relationship –nor did Smith. They were buried in separate graveyards (Stevens famously in an integrated cemetery in 1868; Smith, who often passed as white, revealingly, was buried in a segregated Catholic cemetery in Lancaster many years later). It may well have been true that they were lovers, but by injecting this issue into the movie, the filmmakers risk leaving the impression for some viewers that the “secret” reason for Stevens’s egalitarianism was his desire to legitimate his romance across racial lines.  This type of simplistic connection would appall most historians, but the awkward nature of the revelation (Scene 43) makes it plausible as an interpretation.

Lincoln Family Dynamics (Scenes 2, 3, 12, 15, 16, 18, 29, 30, 31)

No single film could ever hope to capture the range of historical interpretations that have been offered to explain the complicated Lincoln family dynamics.  Some historians consider the marriage between Abraham and Mary Lincoln to have been “a fountain of misery.”  Others see longstanding affection and partnership.  Some find Lincoln to have been essentially an absentee father.  Others extol his sensitive parenting toward very different sons. And these debates have proven especially difficult to resolve because the evidence is so thin.  Hardly any of the family correspondence remains.  None of the family members kept diaries.  Almost all of our information about their relationship derives from second- or third-hand accounts, usually recollected after the war.

Scene 12Yet this deficit of evidence also provides scriptwriter Tony Kushner, director Steven Spielberg and actors such as Daniel Day-Lewis and Sally Field with freedom to offer their own interpretations.  They can imagine private moments where historians are otherwise forced to remain silent or least circumspect.  Two good examples of this occur in the film during Scenes 29 and 30 where President Lincoln engages in loud, back-to-back arguments with his oldest son Robert (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) and then with his wife Mary.  In one episode outside a temporary wartime hospital, the president actually slaps his son in anger.  This is wholly invented.  There is no source for this scene, and it seems entirely implausible to most Lincoln historians, not only because both Lincolns were almost notorious as parents for not disciplining their children, but also because Robert had a reputation for being so outwardly respectful toward his parents.  It seems almost impossible to believe that eldest Lincoln son would have told his father, as he does in the movie, “It’s mama you’re scared of, not me getting killed” and that his father would have then lost control and slapped him in public.  And yet … it could have happened.  There were tensions between father and son, and there was a quiet debate over whether or not Robert should join the Union army.  Nonetheless, this is a risky use of artistic license disconnected from any serious evidence.

The second major argument depicted in the movie is more plausible, but also wholly invented.  The script has Mary Lincoln telling her husband that “you’ve always blamed Robert for being born, for trapping you in a marriage that’s only ever given you grief and caused you regret!”  The line implies that the Lincoln’s had a shotgun wedding of some sort, but Robert was born almost exactly nine months after their wedding day in the early 1840s.  Nor is there any contemporary evidence that Mary Lincoln refused to console their youngest son Tad after his older brother Willie died, or that the president ever threatened her that “for everybody’s goddamned sake, I should have clapped you in the madhouse!”  Some of that information (about the “madhouse”) derives from Elizabeth Keckley’s recollected accounts about Mary’s grief in 1862, but most of the vitriol in this exchange is imagined –again, possibly real but certainly not proven by any reliable record.

Nor is there any basis in the historical record for intertwining the story of Robert Lincoln’s late entry into the Union army with his father’s increasingly determined efforts to secure passage of the antislavery amendment.  Yet in one of the movie’s more audacious –and improbable– plot twists, scriptwriter Tony Kushner follows the explosive back-to-back family arguments of Scenes 29 and 30 with a revealing trip to the opera that suddenly provides a personal motivation for Lincoln’s new sense of urgency about the amendment’s passage.  The script identifies the opera as Gounod’s “Faust” at the Odd Fellows Hall with the president, his wife and Elizabeth Keckley in attendance.  In reality, the Lincolns had seen this popular opera with William Seward when it was showing at  Grover’s Theater during the previous month, in early December 1864.  There is no record of Elizabeth Keckley ever attending theater or opera with the Lincolns and it seems unlikely that she would have remained in the box with the presidential couple while they conversed.  Yet Scene 31 has Keckley overhearing how Mary Lincoln finally reconciled herself to the decision about her son’s enlistment.  She informs her husband crisply, “I believe you when you insist that amending the constitution and abolishing slavery will end this war.  And since you are sending my son into the war, woe unto you if you fail to pass the amendment.”  Lincoln at first demurs, claiming, “Seward doesn’t want me leaving big muddy footprints all over town.”  But Mary Lincoln is unyielding.  “Seward can’t do it,” she claims.  “You must.  Because if you fail to secure the necessary votes, woe unto you, sir.  You will answer to me.”

Final Passage (Scenes 38, 39, 40, 41, 42)

According to the movie’s narrative, Friday, January 27, 1865 was an action-packed and pivotal day.  It was the day of Thaddeus Stevens’s controlled performance in the House, declaring himself strictly for “equality before the law.”  It was also the day marked by Abraham Lincoln’s bitter argument with his oldest son Robert and then his subsequent clash with his wife Mary after he finally decided to concede to Robert’s desire to join the Union army.  And it was in the evening of the 27th that both Mary Lincoln and later dressmaker Elizabeth Keckley urged the president to abandon his hidden-hand approach and provide more decisive leadership in the fight for the antislavery amendment.  All of those “events” are fictional, but they are essential for understanding the film’s point-of-view –namely, that Lincoln interjected himself at the end of the battle for the constitutional amendment in a way that proved decisive.

The next several scenes (33-38) subsequently show Lincoln meeting for the first time with the Seward lobbyists, cajoling support for the amendment by himself or with Secretary Seward, and then on the night of Sunday, January 29, 1865, holding an intense penultimate strategy session in the White House with Rep. James Ashley, Preston and Montgomery Blair, Secretary of State William Henry Seward and aides John Nicolay and John Hay.  This is one of the scenes (38) that has been featured in the movie’s trailers, showing an angry, forceful Lincoln demanding action “Now now now!” and memorably declaring, “I am the President of the United States, clothed in immense power!”

All of these scenes are entirely fictional, but that memorable quotation from Lincoln actually has its roots in a real primary source.  Rep. John B. Alley (R, MA) claimed more than twenty years after the fact that he had heard from some unnamed person during the battle for the amendment that at some point the Scene 38president had called into his office two congressmen in order to tell them that only two more votes were needed for passage and that they “must be procured.”  Then Alley’s recollection provided a lengthy verbatim quotation (86 words) which he attributed to Lincoln that culminated with the ringing phrase, “I am President of the United States, clothed with immense power” (note that the script silently changes “clothed with” to “clothed in” –a more fitting usage).  The problem is that this quotation is almost completely useless as historical testimony.  Alley was recalling events from two decades past that he had apparently heard about second- or third-hand.  There are no names, no dates, and the only specific detail –two votes short of the required two-thirds super-majority– seems suspiciously like the final vote tally (two more than needed).  Regardless, nobody can be trusted to remember verbatim quotations of such length.  Yet Doris Kearns Goodwin quotes the entire passage in her book, Team of Rivals (p. 687) and it appears it was from this account that Kushner got the raw material for his script, which he then embroidered by placing at the very end of the lobbying effort and in a meeting with several of the movie’s principal characters, not simply two unnamed congressmen.

The vote for what ultimately became the Thirteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution did occur on January 31, 1865 and the “Lincoln” filmmakers worked diligently to recreate that moment in its full historical grandeur.  But they also employ here, as elsewhere, various types of artistic license.  None of the floor exchanges from the movie actually match with the official accounts in the Congressional Globe.  Instead, the movie takes as its dramatic centerpiece for that day the story of President Lincoln’s evasive reply about impending peace talks.  This story derives not from the official record but rather from a recollection by Rep. James Ashley and from copies of notes he claimed he wrote to the president and to which the president replied.  According to Ashley, he wrote to the president on January 31:

“Dear Sir, The report is in circulation in the House that Peace Commissioners are on their way or are in the city, and is being used against us.  If it is true, I fear we shall loose [sic] the bill.  Please authorize me to contradict it, if not true.   Respectfully, J.M. Ashley.”

On the reverse side of this note, Lincoln wrote:

“So far as I know, there are no peace Commissioners in the City, or likely to be in it.  Jan. 31, 1865.  A. Lincoln”

Scene 39The filmmakers present this exchange in the most dramatic fashion possible, having Democratic leader Fernando Wood (D, NY) first disrupt the proceedings, allegedly waving “affidavits from loyal citizens” confirming the existence of secret peace talks.  This creates chaos on the floor of the House that leads a fictional “conservative” Republican named Aaron Haddam to indicate (after receiving a critical nod from Preston Blair, perched in the gallery) that the “conservative faction of border and western Republicans” could not support an amendment “if a peace offer is being held hostage to its success.”  Then there is a mad footrace from the Capitol to the White House, involving Lincoln’s aides and the Seward lobbyists.  John Hay, the president’s young assistant private secretary, heatedly warns him against “making false representation” but Lincoln crafts his reply (technically true but obviously deceptive –since the commissioners were on their way to Hampton Roads, VA) and hands the note to seasoned lobbyist William N. Bilbo (James Spader).  Bilbo then delivers it to Rep. Ashley who reads it with a flourish to the entire House.   There is no record of any of this in the official proceedings.  Nor does Ashley claim in his recollection that he read the note from the president on the House floor.  Instead, it seems he may have simply showed it to some key figures.  Bilbo was not even in Washington at the time.  There was almost certainly no footrace.  And no contemporary or historical account has Preston Blair in the gallery giving directions to conservative congressmen.  Aaron Haddam is a fictional character, listed as a Republican from Kentucky, with no obvious historical counterpart.  All of these details are included in the film for dramatic effect but without any real documentation –beyond the notes which Ashley claimed to have in his possession but which are not apparently available in their original forms, and his recollection of the episode, which most historians have accepted as credible.

Then there is the matter of the roll call.  It was an unusual affair.  The House galleries were crowded, anticipation was high and the celebration afterward was unprecedented.  Newspapers and magazines all took note of the revolutionary nature of the moment.  Even the Congressional Globe invested this particular roll call with special drama, recording as it rarely did, outbursts of “considerable applause” when certain lame duck Democratic members, such as Rep. James English (D, CT), voted “ay” for the amendment. This has particular meaning in today’s context since there has erupted a small degree of controversy about Connecticut’s votes in 1865.  In the “Lincoln” movie version of the roll call, two fictional congressmen from Connecticut cast the very first votes on the amendment –both nays.  Yet in reality, the roll call proceeded in alphabetical order by congressman (not by state) and the entire four-man Connecticut delegation actually voted in favor of abolition (because of English’s critical switch).  This second fact helped convince modern-day Connecticut congressman Joe Courtney (D, CT) to demand an apology from Steven Spielberg  in early 2013 and to request a promise for a correction to the DVD edition of the movie.  Scriptwriter Tony Kushner quickly dismissed the request and the affair struck many as a publicity stunt, but New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd then sided with the congressman with an op-ed provocatively headlined, “The Oscar for Best Fabrication.”  What Dreamworks might do in the DVD that it promises to make freely available to every middle and high school in America remains to be seen.

Courtney was not the only figure upset by the filmmakers’ decisions regarding the roll call.  The script altered dozens of names of representatives in the 38th Congress, some for obscure reasons.  The filmed version of the final vote, for example, is full of fictitious names and invented dialogue.  One of these characters –Walter H. Washburn of an unidentified state– casts a vote against the amendment.  The problem is that there were two Washburns in the 38th Congress –a William Washburn and Elihu Washburne –both Republicans who voted eagerly in favor of the amendment. And naturally, their descendants are now disturbed by the implications of the movie and also want changes or corrections.

Most academic historians are less concerned about the name changes (although they seem strangely unnecessary) and have been more fixated on other minor differences from historical reality.  There is the problem of the voting by state (which is a convention of political movies but not the historical Congress).  Then the movie has figures in the gallery who were almost surely not there –such as Mary Lincoln and Preston Blair– but omits identifying figures we know to have been present, such as Frederick Douglass’s son, Charles, who wrote a touching letter afterward about the experience to his father.  The film also attempts to enhance the suspense of the moment by cutting away to places such as Grant’s headquarters at City Point, Virginia, where there is depicted a telegraph reporting in real time about the voting –something that did not actually happen.  And finally, there is the curious decision to have Thaddeus Stevens (Tommy Lee Jones) take the official copy of the amendment from Edward McPherson, the House clerk, claiming that he will “return it in the morning. Creased but unharmed” (Scene 42).  One suspects that Tony Kushner must have some kind of source for that unique story –but if so, it is not yet apparent.

Hampton Roads Peace Talks (Scenes 6, 12, 14, 24, 39, 44)

Jackie Earle Haley

Jackie Earle Haley

One of the several critical strands in the “Lincoln” movie concerns the controversy surrounding the Hampton Roads peace talks (February 3, 1865), where President Lincoln and Secretary of State Seward met with Confederate envoys Alexander Stephens, John Campbell and Robert M.T. Hunter for secret discussions about how to end the war on board the River Queen in Union-controlled Hampton Roads, Virginia (near Fortress Monroe).  No transcript exists for their conversations that day.  Lincoln and Seward died before leaving any recollection of the affair.  So historians have mostly relied upon on the dubious reminiscences of former Confederate Vice President Alexander Stephens.  Partly for this reason, many Civil War historians consider the Hampton Roads talks as little more than a sideshow –one of several improbable efforts undertaken in the last year of the war to end the conflict.  According to this view, Francis P. Blair, Sr. (Preston Blair / Hal Holbrook in the movie) was just one of several foolish old men (including the famous and eccentric Horace Greeley) attempting foolish things in the name of peace but having little effect.  Both Jefferson Davis and Abraham Lincoln were implacable in their positions by the war’s end.  Lincoln, for example, made his preconditions for peace clear from July 18, 1864 forward –an end to the rebellion, the restoration of the union, and the abandonment of slavery.  Those three conditions never changed, making true “peace talks” impossible. Yet other historians are more willing to take the Hampton Roads conference seriously, since it did result in a real meeting between Confederate envoys and President Lincoln.  Doris Kearns Goodwin takes the conference seriously in Team of Rivals (2005), but one of the best accounts available online which considers them significant and details the events surrounding the peace talks comes from an article by William C. Harris in the Journal of the Abraham Lincoln Association. 

The article helps illustrate ways that the movie takes major liberties in presenting Hampton Roads.  The movie has Lincoln meeting with Preston Blair and his children at the Blair House in early January, reluctantly agreeing to secretly “authorize” an unauthorized trip to Richmond for the elder Blair in exchange for their support with the antislavery amendment.  In reality, Blair and Lincoln met alone at the White House in December.  Lincoln authorized a pass for Blair to travel into enemy lines but not to make any peace overtures.  Blair began his journey on January 3, 1865, arriving in Richmond by January 12 and proceeded to outline a wild scheme to Jefferson Davis that included an end to the war followed by a joint expedition of former Confederate and Union troops to remove the French occupation in Mexico.  Davis rejected some of Blair’s ideas but agreed to the possibility of talks for ending hostilities between the “two countries.”   Blair returned to Washington on January 16 and met with Lincoln on January 18, 1865.  The president agreed that Blair could take back to Richmond a message that the president would receive envoys who would be willing to secure peace for “our one common country.”  Blair then presented this message to Jefferson Davis on January 21, 1865.  Davis subsequently met with Alexander Stephens on January 27.  Stephens was his Vice President but also one of his biggest critics.  Davis appointed Stephens and two other notable critics of his policies, John A. Campbell and Robert M.T. Hunter, as his envoys (a sign for some historians, by the way, that he wasn’t serious himself about the talks, but wanted to show up his critics).  Regardless of the motives, the men traveled toward Union lines on January 29 and met with General Grant on January 30 before they eventually spent the morning of February 3 with Lincoln and Seward.

The movie accelerates and rearranges this timeline pretty ruthlessly.  It ignores the fact that Blair took two trips to Richmond (and most of that month) and instead presents him reporting back to Lincoln on or about January 10, 1865 with news that Davis had already appointed his three peace commissioners.  Lincoln (Daniel Day-Lewis) then agrees to proceed with the talks if Blair (Holbrook) lobbies for the antislavery amendment.  Blair objects to the “horsetrading” but accepts the condition.  The next day, Seward (David Strathairn) reveals to Lincoln that he has found out about this deal with Blair and that he objects to it bitterly.  “It’s either the amendment or this Confederate peace,” he says sternly.  “You cannot have both.”  This is a central premise of the movie –one only made possible, however, by rearranging historical chronology and omitting contradictory details.  If the movie had accepted the actual timeline of events, then the connections between the peace talks and the amendment would not be so obvious, nor would the motivations of the key figures appear so starkly at odds.  In other words, there would be less conflict, less drama and eventually less satisfaction in the movie’s resolution.

The movie also ducks the biggest historical controversy over Stephens’s account of Hampton Roads –one which definitely undermines a key element of the Spielberg message.  According to the former Confederate vice president, Lincoln offered to allow southern states to reenter the union by ratifying the Thirteenth Amendment “prospectively,” suggesting that they could take up to five more years to put it into effect.  Stephens also claimed that Lincoln offered payments of up to $400 million for the South to abandon slavery. Historian William Harris also cites recollections from the other commissioners Campbell and Hunter indicating that Lincoln offered compensation.  There is no corroboration for Stephens’s outlandish claim about prospective ratification (which would be utterly unconstitutional) but there is contemporary evidence that Lincoln did consider paying southern states to end the war and abandon slavery.  He drafted such a proposal and presented it to his cabinet on February 5, 1865, which unanimously opposed it.  Lincoln then dropped the plan.  Whether or not he was serious remains an open question.  But it’s revealing that this idea –which certainly threatens to complicate views about Lincoln’s support for abolition– does not appear in the “Lincoln” movie at all.  Doris Kearns Goodwin addresses it in her book, Team of Rivals (2005) and William Harris analyzes the issue extensively in his article and in subsequent book, Lincoln’s Last Months (2004), but here perhaps is a good illustration of the difference between works of history and historical fiction.


When “Lincoln” scriptwriter Tony Kushner responded to criticism from the Connecticut congressman over “inaccuracies” in the final roll call vote, he used the occasion to outline his theory about how to distinguish history from historical drama:

“Here’s my rule: Ask yourself, ‘Did this thing happen?’ If the answer is yes, then it’s historical. Then ask, ‘Did this thing happen precisely this way?’ If the answer is yes, then it’s history; if the answer is no, not precisely this way, then it’s historical drama.”

Tony Kushner

Tony Kushner

The problem with this line of defense is that it’s so simple-minded in its description of history.  Historians are not really capable of deciding how things happened “precisely.”  They argue over matters large and small, almost endlessly, because their method is totally dependent on evidence –and evidence changes. We routinely find new evidence, even for topics as familiar as Lincoln and the Civil War.  Sometimes we discover new ways of looking at old evidence.  And once in awhile, sadly, we lose evidence.  But it’s all about telling stories with the evidence –at least for historians.  For dramatists, the story-telling is accomplished in other ways, usually with the artistry of plot and character. They are not bound, as historians, by the rules of evidence.  That is the difference between history and historical fiction and no amount of getting some things “right” can make up for inventing or rearranging other things.  But it’s not clear that Kushner acknowledges this reality.  He seems to think that he was true to the historical evidence in the “Lincoln” movie. In his response to Rep. Courtney, Kushner makes a sweeping defense of the “historical” nature of his drama, writing:

“The Thirteenth Amendment passed by a two-vote margin in the House in January 1865 because President Lincoln decided to push it through, using persuasion and patronage to switch the votes of lame-duck Democrats, all the while fending off a serious offer to negotiate peace from the South. None of the key moments of that story—the overarching story our film tells—are altered.”

Yet as this guide demonstrates, Kushner altered many “key moments” in this profoundly important historical story.  This guide points them out not to condemn the movie, but rather to remind students (and perhaps future filmmakers) that when you read or invoke the phrase, “Based on a true story,” that means it’s not a true story and should neither be judged –nor defended– as one.


Images courtesy of Dreamworks

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Historians React to the ‘Lincoln” Movie http://housedivided.dickinson.edu/sites/emancipation/2013/02/07/historians-react-to-the-lincoln-movie/ http://housedivided.dickinson.edu/sites/emancipation/2013/02/07/historians-react-to-the-lincoln-movie/#comments Thu, 07 Feb 2013 15:02:41 +0000 http://housedivided.dickinson.edu/sites/emancipation/?p=1198 Continue reading ]]> By Matthew Pinsker                                          GO TO “LINCOLN” MOVIE TEACHER’S GUIDE

The public reaction from most historians to the “Lincoln” movie has been positive, although there have been a few important holdouts and plenty of corrections and suggestions from the academic community that should matter greatly to anyone attempting to teach the film.  There has also been a revealing scuffle over which sources most influenced scriptwriter Tony Kushner.


Eric Foner

The leading academic critics of Spielberg’s movie so far have been Eric Foner, Kate Masur, and Patrick Rael.  Foner, a Pulitzer Prize-winner and one of the most respected historians in the field, claims the movie “grossly exaggerates” its main point about the stark choices confronting the president at the end of the war over abolition or peace (Letter to the Editor, New York Times, November 26, 2012).  Masur accuses the film of oversimplifying the role of blacks in abolition and dismisses the effort as “an opportunity squandered” (Op-Ed, New York Times, November 12, 2012).  She follows up on that criticism with a piece for The Chronicle of Higher Education suggesting several other interpretive possibilities that Spielberg might have pursued to more fully integrate his film (November 30, 2012).  Rael (Bowdoin College) provoked a lively discussion at H-Slavery by arguing in an extensive critique that the film is rooted in “some of the oldest, most out-dated strands of scholarship” (January 7, 2013).

Harold Holzer, co-chair of the Abraham Lincoln Bicentennial Foundation and author of more than 40 books, served as a consultant to the film and praises it but also observes that there are “no shortage of small historical bloopers in the movie” in a lively piece which details many of them for The Daily Beast (November 22, 2012).  Along with Holzer’s notably balanced assessment, one of the most helpful early historical evaluations of the film comes from Joshua Zeitz writing for The Atlantic (November 12, 2012).  Zeitz, who is currently preparing a biography of Lincoln aides John Nicolay and John Hay, considers the depiction of the president and his political challenges to be “masterful” but finds extensive fault with the one-dimensional portraits of nearly all the president’s men.  He writes, “With the exception of Secretary of State William Seward (played convincingly by David Strathairn), Lincoln presents almost every public figure as either comical, quirky, weak-kneed or pathetically self-interested.”

Other historian / fact-checkers have been more kind.  Allen Guelzo, Gettysburg College, writing for The Daily Beast has some plot criticism, but argues that, “The pains that have been taken in the name of historical authenticity in this movie are worth hailing just on their own terms” (November 27, 2012).  David Stewart, independent historical author, writing for History News Network, describes Spielberg’s work as “reasonably solid history” and tells readers of HNN, “go see it with a clear conscience” (November 20, 2012).  Lincoln Biographer Ronald White also admires the film, though he noted a few mistakes and points out in an interview with NPR, “Is every word true?  No.”  (November 23, 2012).  For the Chronicle of Higher Education, Louis Masur finds the opening scene (where a black soldier recites the Gettysburg Address) “contrived” but otherwise considers the rest of the film to be a masterpiece that truly “conjures Lincoln’s world” (November 26, 2012).  The Los Angeles Review of Books produced one of the best summaries detailing the range of historian reactions in a piece by Kelly Candaele (December 14, 2012).  The article quoted extensively from CUNY historian James Oakes who offers a particularly nuanced critique of Kushner’s interpretive choices.  Oakes has praise for the screenwriter’s decision to draw together the politics of abolition and peace talks, but finds “more troubling in terms of historical accuracy” Kushner’s insistence that conservative Republicans (such as the Blair family) opposed the slavery amendment.   In his interview and in his new book, Freedom National (2012), Oakes demonstrates that the Republicans were almost entirely united on nearly all wartime votes regarding emancipation and abolition.  Their differences emerged on other issues, such as reconstruction, a fact that the movie obscures.

Benjamin Schmidt, a graduate student from Princeton, has an eminently teachable piece in The Atlantic on the film’s linguistic anachronisms (January 10, 2013).  Schmidt was able to employ an arsenal of textual databases and easy-to-use tools such as Google’s Ngram viewer to figure out exactly which words and phrases from Tony Kushner’s script were out of place for that period.  Despite Kushner’s brilliance with language, there were many problems of that nature, from important but modern phrases such as “racial equality” to gritty, non-period-style cursing.

Writing for the New York Times “Disunion” series, Philip Zelikow from the University of Virginia dismisses all such academic nitpicking and grandly dubs the filmmaker, “Steven Spielberg, Historian” (November 29, 2012).  Zelikow, a diplomat whose specialty is 20th-century history, actually claims that the movie offers an “original” interpretation of the Civil War’s endgame that will “advance the way historians consider this subject.”  Zelikow argues that Kushner and Spielberg have pulled together various strands concerning the slavery amendment and the Hampton Roads peace talks in a way that no previous historians have accomplished.  Naturally, many historians working in the Civil War field find this claim to be seriously overstated.  Michael Vorenberg, author of Final Freedom (2001), was especially pointed in his comments to Brown University students on their Facebook discussion of the movie.  Vorenberg calls Zelikow’s piece “way off” and argues that “it’s unfortunate that Zelikow trashes historians in that piece” when “it’s clear that all he’s done is to skim a few pages of some books” (November 30, 2012).  Other scholars quickly jumped into this fray –see especially thoughtful comments from Akim Reinhardt and Gary Gutting.


Michael Vorenberg

What’s most interesting about Vorenberg’s strong reaction is that his work was critical to the making of the movie.  Some even believe it might be the most influential secondary source behind the film –at least that’s what Timothy Noah has been arguing in The New Republic (January 10, 2013).  Vorenberg’s Final Freedom (2001) is widely regarded as the best academic study of the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment, which is the main topic of the movie. Noah points out the Steven Spielberg optioned Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Team of Rivals (2005) long before it was actually written and that Tony Kushner’s final script bears little resemblance in style or content to the book from which it was “officially” adapted.  Both the online magazine Slate (January 10, 2013) and the Brown University student newspaper (January 13, 2013) also reported on this brewing mini-scandal until Kushner responded by acknowledging that even though Vorenberg’s book is not credited in the film, it is what he termed the “definitive account” of the congressional passage of the amendment and “fantastic”  in its achievements. Kushner says that he read Final Freedom carefully but denies that it was a “principal” source for the movie. To help allay any concerns about his use of sources, Kushner then shared with Noah a list of more than thirty sources –both primary and secondary—which he claims were especially influential in shaping the script beyond Team of Rivals.  Vorenberg was gracious in his response.  “Films don’t have to have footnotes,” he told the Brown student newspaper, “If my book helped add accuracy to the film, I can take some pleasure in that.”

Historical author / blogger Kevin Levin finds the whole process of historical analysis to be more than a little aggravating.  Writing for The Atlantic, he complains, “Historians Need To Give Steven Spielberg A Break” (November 26, 2012).   I agree with Levin in some ways, but for the opposite reason.  I have argued for Quora (and Huffington Post) that people must stop worrying about whether any movie which necessarily invents dialogue, characters and scenes should ever be considered as “historically accurate.”  It’s a work of art –historical fiction—which we need to judge by other standards (November 27, 2012).  That’s also the point, Spielberg himself made at the Dedication Day ceremonies at Gettysburg (November 19, 2012) when he called his effort a “dream” and made a careful distinction between his historically inspired movie and actual works of history.  The rest of this teacher’s guide will help explain, however, specific areas in the film where students might raise questions about accuracy or interpretation, in order to help them decide for themselves what they think about the film, the challenges of the period, and ultimately, Lincoln’s legacy –both as a president and as movie.

Earlier versions of this piece have appeared at Quora and Wikipedia.


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The Unofficial Teacher’s Guide to Spielberg’s “Lincoln” (2012) http://housedivided.dickinson.edu/sites/emancipation/2013/02/03/the-unofficial-teachers-guide-to-spielbergs-lincoln-2012/ http://housedivided.dickinson.edu/sites/emancipation/2013/02/03/the-unofficial-teachers-guide-to-spielbergs-lincoln-2012/#comments Sun, 03 Feb 2013 04:37:13 +0000 http://housedivided.dickinson.edu/sites/emancipation/?p=1184 Continue reading ]]> Scene 1Few Hollywood films have ever been as well suited for discussion within American history classrooms as Steven Spielberg’s “Lincoln” (2012).  The movie tackles some of the biggest issues in the study of the Civil War and Abraham Lincoln’s legacy but does so with a tight framework that demands background and careful explanation.  On this page, we attempt to help teachers guide their students by providing a series of resources that might serve as an unofficial “teacher’s guide” to this important film.

General Background

Cast of Characters (with comparison images of real figures and actors)

Scene-by-scene summary (with access to Tony Kushner’s script)

 Historians React to the “Lincoln” Movie

Warning:  Artists at Work (extensive analysis of artistic license in the “Lincoln” movie)

Related Research Tools

The Basic Lincoln (records from House Divided research engine)

The Total Lincoln (Lincoln’s Collected Works, Papers, and Day-By-Day  –all in one place)

Lincoln-Douglas Debates Digital Classroom (includes clickable word cloud of the debates)

Interactive Excerpts from Michael Burlingame’s Abraham Lincoln: A Life (2008)

Matthew Pinsker challenges the “Myth” of Rivals  (Journal Divided)

Why is Feb. 1st “National Freedom Day”? (Blog Divided)

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“Lincoln” (2012) Cast of Characters http://housedivided.dickinson.edu/sites/emancipation/2013/02/02/lincoln-2012-cast-of-characters/ http://housedivided.dickinson.edu/sites/emancipation/2013/02/02/lincoln-2012-cast-of-characters/#comments Sat, 02 Feb 2013 00:19:40 +0000 http://housedivided.dickinson.edu/sites/emancipation/?p=1113 Continue reading ]]> GO TO “LINCOLN” MOVIE TEACHER’S GUIDE

Fictional characters are in italics.   Actors names are in parentheses.
Links for more information go to the House Divided research engine.

The President and First Family                        

Abraham Lincoln, President    (Daniel Day-Lewis)
Mary Lincoln, First Lady           (Sally Field)
Robert Lincoln, oldest son       (Joseph Gordon-Levitt)
Tad Lincoln, youngest son       (Gulliver McGrath)

Abraham Lincoln

Abraham Lincoln

Daniel Day Lewis

Daniel Day Lewis







Mary Lincoln

Mary Lincoln 

Sally Field

Sally Field







Robert Lincoln

Robert Lincoln

Joseph Gordon-Levitt

Joseph Gordon-Levitt







Tad Lincoln

Tad Lincoln

Gulliver McGrath

Gulliver McGrath








White House staff and servants

John Hay, aide                                      (Joseph Cross)
John Nicolay, aide                                (Jeremy Strong)
Tom Pendel, doorkeeper                      (Ford Flannagan)
Elizabeth Keckley, dressmaker             (Gloria Reuben)
William Slade, servant                          (Stephen Henderson)


John Hay


Joseph Cross








John G. Nicolay

Jeremy Strong

Jeremy Strong








Elizabeth Keckley

Scene 42

Gloria Reuben








William Slade

Scene 15

Stephen Henderson







Presidential Cabinet

William Seward, Secy State          (David Strathairn
Edwin Stanton, Secy War              (Bruce McGill)
Gideon Welles, Secy Navy            (Grainger Hines)
John P. Usher, Secy Interior          (Dakin Matthews)
James Speed, Atty General           (Richard Topol)
William Fessenden, Treasury         (Walt Smith)


William Henry Seward

William Henry Seward

David Strathairn

David Strathairn







Edwin Stanton

Edwin Stanton

Bruce McGill

Bruce McGill







Seward’s lobbyists
Richard Schell                 (Tim Blake Nelson)
Robert Latham                (John Hawkes)
W.N. Bilbo                     (James Spader)


Richard Schell

Richard Schell

Tim Blake Nelson

Tim Blake Nelson







Bilbo's signature

Bilbo’s signature

James Spader

James Spader







Conservative Republicans
Preston Blair, Aging party leader                      (Hal Holbrook)
Montgomery Blair, Ex-Cabinet member           (Byron Jennings)
Elizabeth Blair Lee, hostess                              (Julie White)
Rep. Aaron Haddam, (R-KY)                          (Gannon McHale)



Preston Blair

Preston Blair

Hal Holbrook

Hal Holbrook







Radical Republicans
Rep. Thaddeus Stevens, (R-PA), committee chair           (Tommy Lee Jones)
Rep. James Ashley, (R-OH), amendment sponsor           (David Costabile)
Rep. Schuyler Colfax, (R-IN), Speaker                           (Bill Raymond)
Rep. Hiram Price, (R-IA)                                                (Michael S. Kennedy)
Sen. “Bluff” Wade, (R-OH) (listed in script as R, MA)     (Wayne Duvall)
Sen. Charles Sumner (R-MA)                                          (John Hutton)
 Asa Vintner Litton, Republican congressman               (Stephen Spinella)


Thaddeus Stevens

Thaddeus Stevens

Tommy Lee Jones

Tommy Lee Jones







James Ashley

James Ashley

David Costabile

David Costabile







Democratic congressmen
Rep. Fernando Wood (D-NY)              (Lee Pace)
Rep. George Pendleton (D-OH)            (Peter McRobbie)
Rep. Alexander Coffroth (D-PA)          (Boris McGiver)
Rep. George Yeaman (D-KY)              (Michael Stuhlbarg)
Rep. Jacob Graylor, (D-PA)                (Robert Peters)
Rep. Charles Hanson, (D-NY)              (Kevin L. O’Donnell)
Rep. Clay Hawkins, (D-OH)                 (Walton Goggins)
Rep. Giles Stuart, (D-NY)                     (Jamie Horton)
Rep. Homer Benson, (D-NY)                 (Richard Warner)
Rep. Nelson Merrick, (N-NY)                (Joe Dellinger)
Rep. William Hutton, (D-IN)                 (David Warshofsky)
Rep. Edwin F. LeClerk, (D-OH)            (John Moon)
Rep. Beanpole Burton, (D-MO)              (Raynor Scheine)


Fernando Wood

Fernando Wood

Lee Pace

Lee Pace







George Pendleton

George Pendleton

Peter McRobbie

Peter McRobbie







Alexander Coffroth

Alexander Coffroth

Boris McGiver

Boris McGiver







George Yeaman

George Yeaman

Michael Stuhlbarg

Michael Stuhlbarg







Confederate envoys
Alexander Stephens, Vice President            (Jackie Earle Haley)
John Campbell, Assistant Secy of War        (Gregory Itzin)
Robert M.T. Hunter, Senator (VA)             (Mike Shiflett)


Alexander Stephens

Alexander Stephens\

Jackie Earle Haley

Jackie Earle Haley







Miscellaneous figures
Gen. Ulysses S. Grant, USA                                      (Jared Harris)
Lydia Smith, Stevens’ housekeeper and lover             (S. Epatha Merkerson)
Harold Green, free black soldier                              (Colman Domingo)
Ira Clark, free black soldier                                      (David Oyelowo)
Mr. & Mrs. Jolly from Jefferson City, Missouri        (Bill Camp & Elizabeth Marvel)


Ulysses S. Grant

Ulysses S. Grant

Jared Harris

Jared Harris







Lydia Smith

Lydia Smith

S. Epatha Merkerson

S. Epatha Merkerson







(Fictional characters are in italics)

Images courtesy of House Divided Project (historical figures) and Dreamworks (actors)


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Spielberg’s “Lincoln” (2012): The Unofficial Scene-by-Scene Summary http://housedivided.dickinson.edu/sites/emancipation/2013/02/01/spielbergs-lincoln-2012-the-unofficial-scene-by-scene-summary/ http://housedivided.dickinson.edu/sites/emancipation/2013/02/01/spielbergs-lincoln-2012-the-unofficial-scene-by-scene-summary/#comments Fri, 01 Feb 2013 13:51:31 +0000 http://housedivided.dickinson.edu/sites/emancipation/?p=1053 Continue reading ]]> GO TO “LINCOLN” MOVIE TEACHER’S GUIDE

Lincoln MovieSteven Spielberg’s “Lincoln” (2012) is a two-and-a-half hour film that zeroes in on a defining moment from near the end of the Civil War –January 1865 and the debate over the proposed amendment to the Constitution abolishing slavery.  The film claims that it was “Based in Part on Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln by Doris Kearns Goodwin.”  However, the script written by playwright Tony Kushner appears much different in focus and style than the popular 2005 joint biography of Lincoln and his selected cabinet rivals.  The Goodwin book is searchable through Google here.  The time period covered by the film occupies only about ten pages of the book (pp. 685-95).  The final script from Kushner is available in full text from Dreamworks here. And below you will find a scene-by-scene summary of the script prepared by House Divided Project Director Matthew Pinsker.  The part numbers (50 total) have been assigned by House Divided, but they are grouped by the 20 DVD scene titles (with exact start time locations) provided in the “Scene Selection” menu of the “Lincoln” movie Blu-ray / DVD.  You can also download a printable version of this summary here.



Scene 1Part 1:    (Washington Navy Yard, nighttime) The film opens with a brief flashback to the Battle of Jenkins Ferry (April 30, 1864).  Then it shows two free black soldiers conversing with a seated President Lincoln during a cold, wet evening.  They are joined by two nervous, young, white soldiers, who soon begin a revealing discussion about the Gettysburg Address.




Scene 2

Part 2:  (White House interior, nighttime) The second scene opens with a visualization of one of Lincoln’s recent dreams.  Abraham & Mary Lincoln are then seen inside Mrs. Lincoln’s White House boudoir, discussing the dream and other subjects, including the possibility of a new push for the proposed Thirteenth Amendment, abolishing slavery.



Scene 3Part 3:  (White House, 2d floor, nighttime) President Lincoln leaves Mrs. Lincoln, walks down the second floor hallway and lays down with sleeping Tad in his White House office before carrying his youngest son off to bed.




Scene 4Part 4:  (Treasury Department, exterior, morning) There is a brief flagpole dedication, with a very short Lincoln speech and then a carriage ride discussion with Secretary of State Seward and President Lincoln regarding prospects for passage of Thirteenth Amendment; aide John Hay present, shuffling papers.




Part 5:  (White House, 2d floor office, daytime) Lincoln & Seward continue their discussion. Mr. and Mrs. Jolly from Jefferson City, Missouri enter the office and Seward uses the couple to illustrate a point about the Thirteenth Amendment.

Scene 6Part 6:  (Blair House, evening) Lincoln and Preston Blair discuss the Thirteenth Amendment and also the possibility of opening peace negotiations with Richmond; also participating are two of Blair’s children, Montgomery Blair (former postmaster general) and Elizabeth Blair Lee.  Tad Lincoln is present.  Afterwards, Preston Blair leaves for Richmond.





Scene 7Part 7:  (White House, morning) The cabinet meeting includes a discussion of the attack on Fort Fisher / Wilmington, NC and then turns to a discussion of the proposed Thirteenth Amendment that includes vigorous objections from Secretary of Interior John Usher and a lengthy defense of the abolition amendment and his wartime emancipation policies by President Lincoln.





Scene 8Part 8:  (White House office, afternoon) Lincoln, Seward and Congressman James Ashley discuss plans to bring the Thirteenth Amendment up for a new vote. Ashley objects to the plan, which seems to surprise him, and fears defeat.  Lincoln and Seward press hard.



Scene 9Part 9: (Capitol Hill, office of Rep. Thaddeus Stevens, evening) Chairman of the Ways & Means Committee, Stevens, hosts a meeting of Radical Republicans to discuss their position on whether or not to hold a new vote for the proposed Thirteenth Amendment.  There is vigorous debate, especially about Lincoln’s intentions.  The group includes Speaker Schuyler Colfax, Senator Benjamin “Bluff” Wade, and Congressman Ashley (sponsor of the Thirteenth Amendment).  Also present is a fictional congressman, Asa Vintner Litton, who appears to be a figure somewhat based upon Congressman Henry Winter Davis, who had been author, along with Sen. Wade, of the Radical plan for Reconstruction, the Wade-Davis bill, which President Lincoln had pocket vetoed in 1864.

Scene 10Part 10: (Hotel, Washington, DC, night) Secretary of State Seward meets with three lobbyists, Robert Latham, Richard Schell and W.N. Bilbo.  They discuss a strategy for persuading –and possibly bribing—selected lame duck Democratic congressmen into supporting the Thirteenth Amendment.





[JANUARY 9, 1865]

Scene 11Part 11: (House of Representatives, daytime) The House Debate Begins. This scene attempts to portray the intensity of Civil War era politics and features a series of insults traded across the partisan aisle between Northern Democrats such as Fernando Wood from New York and Radical Republicans such as Thaddeus Stevens from Pennsylvania and Hiram Price from Iowa.   The Seward lobbyists sit in the packed gallery (which includes Mary Lincoln and her dressmaker Elizabeth Keckley) and strategize quietly about lame duck Democrats whom they might target.

Scene 12Part 12: (White House, daytime) Robert Lincoln returns from Harvard to a crowded White House corridor filled with petitioners and his younger brother Tad being pulled wildly along in a cart by a goat.  Robert talks with his mother.




Scene 13

Part 13: (Various locations around Washington, day and night) Robert Lincoln tries to see his father, but President Lincoln focuses instead on finishing a discussion with Preston Blair, who has returned from Richmond with news about peace talks. A series of short snapshots show the Seward Lobby (Latham, Schell and Bilbo) in action, targeting a series of lame duck Democratic congressmen with offers of administration jobs and cash in exchange for switching votes in favor of the Thirteenth Amendment.


[JANUARY 11, 1865]


Part 14: (White House office, early evening) The President and Secretary Seward discuss the state of the lobbying efforts and Seward reveals his anger at the President’s decision to authorize peace negotiations without consulting him.  The scene then shifts briefly to “No Man’s Land” outside of Petersburg, VA and captures the Confederate officials being transported into Union lines, before returning the point-of-view to the White House for the heated argument between Seward and Lincoln over Blair’s intervention in the peace process.

[JANUARY 12, 1865]

Quick cut-away shows Confederate officials arriving at City Point –Grant’s Headquarters

[JANUARY 14, 1865]

Scene 15Part 15: (White House bedrooms, late afternoon)   Tad and Robert are in Lincoln’s bedroom while the president dresses for the Grand Reception.  Robert is pushing his father to allow him to serve in the military.  Tad has a revealing discussion with free black servants William Slade and Elizabeth Keckley about slavery.  The president then walks down the hall and discovers Mary Lincoln sitting alone in their dead son Willie’s former bedroom.  They discuss her grief, recalling how he had died during a previous White House reception in 1862.



Scene 16

Part 16: (White House reception room, early evening) Mary Lincoln cautiously greets leading Radicals in the receiving line for the Grand Reception and engages in a particularly tension-filled conversation with Thaddeus Stevens.




Scene 17Part 17: (White House kitchen, evening) President Lincoln and Congressman Stevens have a private discussion about the proposed anti-slavery amendment and a revealing argument about differences in strategy and tactics.



Scene 18Part 18: (Mary Lincoln’s boudoir, White House, late evening) Lincoln helps his wife undress after the reception but they are interrupted by news brought by aide John Nicolay that the assault has begun on Fort Fisher outside of Wilmington.





Scene 19Part 19: (War Department telegraph office, late night) There is commotion and anxiety apparent in the telegraph office as Secretary of War Edwin Stanton, Secretary of Navy Gideon Welles and telegraph officer Thomas Eckert discuss the assault on Fort Fisher.  Suddenly, a seated President Lincoln interrupts the exchange with a funny story about Ethan Allen that appears to relieve some of the tension until news finally arrives that Union forces have prevailed at the Fort, though not yet at the city of Wilmington, and at the cost of yet another round of bloody casualties.

[JANUARY 16, 17, 18, OR 19, 1865]

Scene 20Part 20: (House chamber, daytime)  Democratic congressman Fernando Wood discusses the aftermath of the bloody assault on Fort Fisher with one of his colleagues while Radical Republican leaders gather among themselves.  Democratic congressman George Yeaman (KY) announces that he plans to oppose the anti-slavery amendment while some of the Seward lobbyists plot ways to switch his vote from their perch in the gallery.


Scene 21Part 21: (House committee room, daytime)  Fernando Wood reveals to Congressman Clay Hawkins that he has become aware of Hawkins’ plans to sell his vote on the amendment.

Part 22: (Outside in woods, morning)  Clay Hawkins and W.N. Bilbo, the lobbyist, are hunting and discussing their deal.  Hawkins seems spooked by the threats against him and literally starts to run away from the deal and Bilbo as they argue over his commitment.

Scene 22Part 23: (Washington DC alley, afternoon)   The lobbyists confront Secretary of State Seward in his carriage explaining their lack of progress.  There is a quick cut-away showing how one congressman tried to shoot W.N. Bilbo outside a tavern.  The lobbyists then try to convince Seward that the president needs to deny the rumors about secret peace talks.



[JANUARY 20, 1865]


Scene 24Part 24: (Outside City Point, on board River Queen steamship, daytime) General U.S. Grant negotiates with the Confederate officials, arguing with Vice President Alexander Stephens over references to “two countries” in the official dispatch the Confederates have prepared.  Grant sends Lincoln a telegram urging him to meet with the Confederate envoys himself.



Part 25: (Seward residence, Lafayette Square, late night) Seward finishes reading the telegram from Grant with Lincoln present, wrapped in a shawl.  They discuss how to proceed.

Scene 25Part 26: (White House hallway, late night) President Lincoln paces in the hallway, sits lost in thought in his office, and then turns up in Nicolay’s and Hay’s bedroom in the White House, waking up his aides to discuss a pardon case.  Realizing his boss’s agony, Hay offers company, but Lincoln claims he is best left alone.



[JANUARY 21, 1865]

Scene 27Part 27: (War Department telegraph office, pre-dawn) Lincoln now has wandered over to the telegraph office, still covered in his shawl, where he is finishing a draft reply to General Grant.  Two young telegraph operators (David Homer Bates and Sam Beckwith) are with him and discuss various topics, including being “fitted” for the times and the nature of Euclid’s proofs about equality, before Lincoln finally decides to instruct Grant to bring the Confederate envoys to Hampton Roads, VA.



[JANUARY 27, 1865]

Scene 28

Part 28: (House of Representatives, morning) Anxiety rises as Thaddeus Stevens prepares to take the floor.  Democratic congressmen led by Fernando Wood attempt to bait the old Radical leader into making intemperate remarks about social revolution and equality.  Stevens stubbornly refuses to say anything beyond the amendment’s goal of preserving “equality before the law.”  Mary Lincoln watches in admiration but her black dressmaker, Elizabeth Keckley, despises the nature of the debate and leaves the gallery abruptly.  Stevens controls his tongue but hurls insults at his Democratic opponents.  His junior colleague, Asa Vintner Litton, later expresses disappointment in the performance and Stevens attempts to explain and defend his refusal to promise support for civil rights at that moment.


Scene 29Part 29: (Washington, temporary army hospital, daytime)  The president and his son Robert are visiting wounded soldiers and discussing Robert’s thwarted desire to join the army.  Robert suspects the trip to see the wounded was designed to discourage him from serving.  They argue and President Lincoln slaps his son outside the hospital.  Robert leaves in anger.



Scene 18Part 30: (Mary Lincoln’s boudoir, White House, nighttime) The president has decided to let his eldest son join the army and now tries to explain the decision to his wife, who fiercely objects.  They argue and he leaves without winning her over.

Part 31: (Washington theater, evening)  The Lincoln’s are attending the opera to view a performance of “Faust.”  Elizabeth Keckley is also present.  Mary Lincoln reveals to her husband that the only way she can reconcile his various decisions will be if he succeeds in securing the Thirteenth Amendment.  That will end the war, in her opinion, and prevent her son from risking his life.

Scene 32Part 32: (outside White House, nighttime) Elizabeth Keckley confronts President Lincoln alone after the night at the opera, thanking him for his “concern” about abolishing slavery but urging him to do even more.  They discuss what might happen after the proposed amendment passes.  Keckley claims that blacks are not worried about racial prejudices and their social and economic prospects –yet.  “Freedom’s first,” she says firmly.



[JANUARY 28, 29 OR 30, 1865]

Scene 33Part 33: (Hotel, Washington, late night) The disheveled, exhausted lobbyists are gathered in their hotel room.  Seward enters with Lincoln in tow.  The men are stunned.  Bilbo even curses.  Lincoln discusses strategy with them and begins firing off a series of critical directives, especially regarding a Pennsylvania Democrat named Alexander Coffroth.




Scene 34Part 34: (Thaddeus Stevens’ office, night) A nervous Alexander Coffroth enters Stevens’s office.  The Radical leader informs him that if he wants to hold his seat he must switch his vote in favor of the amendment.  Coffroth agrees.

Part 35: (Hotel, Washington, late night) A return to the previous point-of-view as Lincoln continues his conversation with the lobbyists, now focusing on George Yeaman, a Democratic congressman from Kentucky.


Part 36: (Seward’s office, State Department, daytime)  Lincoln and Seward are facing a nervous Congressman Yeaman who is resisting any switch of his vote in favor of the amendment.  Lincoln attempts to persuade him, answering various objections, but the conversation ends inconclusively.

Part 37: (Home of Congressman Hutton, Washington, night) Lincoln discusses the amendment outside the front door of a Democratic congressman named Hutton, whose brother has died fighting for the Union.

Scene 38Part 38: (Lincoln’s White House office, night) The president is engaged in deep strategic discussions with Congressman Ashley, Secretary Seward, Preston and Montgomery Blair.  Both aides Nicolay and Hay are present.  Ashley objects to the secret peace talks.  Lincoln flashes anger, demanding action “Now, now now!”  When the men appear uncertain about how to obtain the remaining votes, Lincoln asserts loudly, “I am the President of the United States, clothed in immense power!”


[JANUARY 31, 1865]

Scene 39Part 39: (House of Representatives, morning) Thaddeus Stevens arrives first on the morning of the vote for the Thirteenth Amendment.  The gallery fills with “well-to-do black people”, some Radical Republican senators, Lincoln’s aides, the Seward lobbyists and Mary Lincoln with Elizabeth Keckley.  Congressman Vintner welcomes the black guests.   The final statements begin but Democratic leader George Pendleton interrupts to announce that there are Confederate peace envoys in the city.  There are calls to postpone the vote. Aaron Haddam, a conservative Republican from Kentucky, seeks guidance from Preston Blair, also seated in the gallery, who nods.  Haddam then announces that conservatives cannot support the amendment “if a peace offer is being held hostage to its success.”  The Seward lobbyists and Lincoln’s White House aides Nicolay and Hay rush from the Capitol to the White House.

Part 40: (Lincoln’s White House office, afternoon)  Hay makes it to Lincoln first, with Bilbo, heavily winded, behind him.  Lincoln reads the motion from the House and crafts a response.   Reading over his shoulder, Hay worries about the president making any false representations to Congress.  Lincoln denies doing so and insists that they take his reply back to the Congress.


Scene 41Part 41: (House of Representatives, afternoon) Congressman James Ashley reads Lincoln’s response which simply denies that any Confederate envoys are “in the city.” The Democrats denounce this as a  “lawyer’s dodge” but conservative Republicans accept the answer and the voting begins.  The roll call proceeds by state.  Meanwhile, quick cutaways show Lincoln reading with Tad during the vote and anxious crowds following the results outside of the Capitol and at Grant’s headquarters in City Point.


Scene 42Part 42: (House of Representatives, late afternoon) The roll call proceeds until final passage is achieved.  In the end, Beanpole Burton, Coffroth, Hutton, Yeaman, Hawkins, and the Speaker himself (Schuyler Colfax) who usually doesn’t participate in voting –all cast affirmative votes.   The announcement sets off wild celebrations in the gallery, though the seats of the Seward lobbyists are now noticeably empty.  Thaddeus Stevens takes the final bill from the stunned clerk, promising to return it the next morning.



Scene 43Part 43: (Stevens residence, evening) Thaddeus Stevens limps home on his club foot carrying the final bill and presents it to Lydia Smith, his black housekeeper.  They are lovers as well, however, and the scene switches to their bedroom where they lay together joyfully reading the words of the Amendment.




[FEBRUARY 3, 1865]

Scene 44Part 44: (Fortress Monroe, Hampton Roads, VA, late afternoon) President Lincoln arrives to meet with the Confederate envoys and Secretary Seward on board the River Queen.  The discussion veers back-and-forth but without resolution.  Lincoln won’t yield to any of the Confederate demands.




[APRIL 3, 1865]

Scene 45Part 45: (Outside Petersburg, VA, daytime) Lincoln moves along on horseback past dead bodies that litter a recent battlefield.  Then we see Lincoln seated with Grant at the general’s temporary headquarters in what is now Union-occupied Petersburg.  They discuss surrender terms for the Confederates.  Lincoln observes that he had never seen carnage like he had seen that day.


[APRIL 9, 1865]

Quick cut-away showing General Lee surrendering to General Grant at Appomattox.   Robert Lincoln is present as a junior officer on Grant’s staff.

[APRIL 14, 1865]

Part 46: (Washington streets, carriage ride, afternoon) The President and Mrs. Lincoln are having a happy conversation about their future travel plans now that the war has essentially ended.


Scene 47Part 47: (White House, evening) The president is getting ready to go to the theatre with help from his servant, William Slade.  Congressman James Ashley and Speaker of the House Schuyler Colfax are with the president talking about his recent comments on the possibility of allowing blacks to vote.  They report that Thaddeus Stevens is “furious” that Lincoln qualified the extension of suffrage within certain limits but the tone of the conversation is friendly. Nicolay interrupts to report that Mrs. Lincoln is waiting in the carriage.   The men watch as Lincoln slowly walks down the hall and leaves the White House.

Part 48: (Grover’s Theatre, evening) A performance on the stage is interrupted by the announcement that the president has been shot at another theater.  Tad Lincoln, in the audience, is rushed out in anguish as pandemonium erupts.

[APRIL 15, 1865]

Part 49: (Peterson’s Boarding House, early morning) The dying president lays on the bed in the residence across from where he had been shot at Ford’s Theatre.  Cabinet officials, officers and the president’s family gather around him as he dies at 7:22 am.

[MARCH 4, 1865]

Scene 50Part 50: (East Portico of the Capitol, daytime) The movie ends with a flashback to President Lincoln delivering his Second Inaugural Address.




SCENE 20:  CREDITS (2:21)

Images from the “Lincoln” movie courtesy of Dreamworks



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Insights from James Oakes’s, “Freedom National” (2012) http://housedivided.dickinson.edu/sites/emancipation/2012/12/20/insights-from-james-oakess-book-freedom-national-2012/ http://housedivided.dickinson.edu/sites/emancipation/2012/12/20/insights-from-james-oakess-book-freedom-national-2012/#comments Thu, 20 Dec 2012 16:24:49 +0000 http://housedivided.dickinson.edu/sites/emancipation/?p=1028 Continue reading ]]> freedomnationalJames Oakes’s Freedom National: The Destruction of Slavery in the United States, 1861-1865 (Norton, 2012) profoundly challenges the way most American history textbooks and classrooms have been presenting the story of Civil War emancipation.  The nearly 500-page book contains a host of new details that complicate what can sometimes appear as a simple narrative.  From Oakes’s perspective, emancipation should never be presented as a singular turning point in the war, nor should Abraham Lincoln ever stand alone in our discussions as the Great Emancipator.  Instead, Oakes explains the origins and evolution of American anti-slavery policy and describes how in his opinion the Civil War was not “transformed” by President Lincoln’s actions.  According to Oakes, this was never simply a war for Union that turned into a struggle for freedom, but rather a conflict where both values coincided from the beginning in the hands of several different types of historical actors, and were inextricably linked until the very end through various Republican policy initiatives, involving both the President and Congress.  Here is a summary of the dozen most compelling claims from Freedom National that should have the biggest impact on classrooms and future textbooks:

1.  The Civil War was never simply a “war for Union” that became a “struggle for freedom.”  It was always about both.

2.  Most abolitionists never believed that the federal government could abolish slavery by ordinary political or legal means.  Since the 1830′s, they advocated an immediate moral confrontation with slaveholders, but nearly everyone conceded in the years before the war erupted that the Constitution allowed slave states to decide the fate of the institution within their own borders.

3.  Leading abolitionists, however, had long warned (well before the Civil War) that military emancipation was a legitimate option available for the national government that might be used within states to free slaves in times of war or rebellion.

4.  Republican policies toward slavery were not just about containing its spread, but offered a fully-realized vision of “freedom national” that while short of advocating what was called immediate abolition, nonetheless represented a serious threat to slavery’s future.

5.  Self-emancipation by thousands of slaves at the very outset of the war soon resulted in a real and surprisingly effective early emancipation measure –the so-called First Confiscation Act (August 6, 1861).  This measure gained added impact by an even more radical implementation of the policy through Lincoln’s War Department.

6.  Congress took several notable steps to combat slavery and promote emancipation by 1862, culminating in the Second Confiscation Act (July 17, 1862) which was an explicit attempt by Republicans on Capitol Hill to authorize universal and immediate emancipation on humanitarian grounds separate from the principles of property confiscation.

7.  Lincoln’s selective actions against emancipation in the early years of the war –rescinding orders by Generals John Fremont and David Hunter, for example– have been misinterpreted and used incorrectly to overstate his disagreements with the so-called Radical Republicans –at least on the question of emancipation.

8. Lincoln’s September 22, 1862 Emancipation Proclamation was not merely a “Preliminary” one, but had immediate consequences that resulted in more freedom for tens of thousands of ex-slaves in Union-occupied areas of the South.

9.  The Emancipation Proclamation (January 1, 1863) was a decisive turning point that shifted federal policy beyond earlier anti-slavery measures, but not in the way that many people claim.  It was pivotal mainly because of the way it implemented new policies of enticement (encouraging slaves to leave southern plantations) and enlistment (paying black men to serve in the Union army).

10.  Confederates and pro-slavery forces in the Border States launched a fierce –but now often ignored– “counterrevolution” to emancipation that in many ways made enslavement worse after 1863 and even more disruptive for black families.

11. The subsequent practical and legal limitations of wartime anti-slavery policies –only about 15 percent of southern slaves had been physically emancipated by the war’s end– eventually compelled Republicans to rally around an abolition amendment to the Constitution that explicitly revoked the old “federal consensus” about slavery within states and finally settled the question of slavery’s legal future.

12.  What the destruction of slavery in America helps illustrate is that emancipation and abolition are different concepts (one frees individuals; the other changes laws) and that most Republican leaders (including Lincoln) aggressively promoted both policies simultaneously throughout most of the wartime period.


To see James Oakes in action, click on the image below to view a recent lecture he gave on “Lincoln and Race,” at a 2008 conference sponsored by Columbia University and the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History.

James Oakes: Lincoln and Race from The Gilder Lehrman Institute on Vimeo.

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North Carolina Slaveholder Comments on Emancipation http://housedivided.dickinson.edu/sites/emancipation/2012/11/09/north-carolina-slaveholder-comments-on-emancipation/ http://housedivided.dickinson.edu/sites/emancipation/2012/11/09/north-carolina-slaveholder-comments-on-emancipation/#comments Fri, 09 Nov 2012 15:31:01 +0000 http://housedivided.dickinson.edu/sites/emancipation/?p=976 Continue reading ]]>

Courtesy North Carolina State Archives

James Rumley was a 50-year-old government clerk living in Beaufort, North Carolina when President Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation.  Rumley, a single man, had owned two slaves at the outset of conflict and had spent most of the previous year living bitterly under Union occupation.  The Federal forces had arrived in this section of the Outer Banks in March 1862 following their victory at New Bern (March 14, 1862).  To bear witness against what he considered the horrors of Union misrule, Rumley began keeping a secret diary which he maintained until the end of the conflict in 1865.  Outwardly, the local clerk remained helpful to the Union occupiers and  even took a loyalty oath, but his diary makes clear that Rumley never accepted the legitimacy of the occupation and deeply resented the destruction of slavery.  This is one of the very few published diary accounts by a southern secessionist sympathizer living under Union occupation during the Civil War. The entire diary is not available online, but for the full-text printed version, consult Judkin Browning, ed., The Southern Mind Under Union rule: The Diary of James Rumley, Beaufort, North Carolina, 1862-1865 (Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2009).  Here are selections from Rumley’s descriptions of how former slaves and Union soldiers began implementing freedom even before January 1, 1863 followed by a remarkable entry depicting how he viewed the President’s proclamation on the day of its execution.

May 1862

“…Slaves are now deserting in scores from all parts of the country, and our worst fears on this subject are likely to be realized.  The order which General [Ambrose] Burnside promised to make, to prevent them from entering his lines, has not been made. His lying proclamation was a Yankee trick.  These runaway Negroes are allowed to pass the sentinels at any time, even in the night.  Often white citizens are required to retire to their homes.  They are welcomed at the different quarters by officers and soldiers, while the lying scoundrels who receive them declare they do not encourage them to come among them and do not want such nuisances.  An infamous law of the Federal Congress [March 13, 1862 Additional Article of War], prohibiting the surrender of fugitive slaves, enables these fanatics to make their quarters perfect harbors of runaway negroes.  Officers employ them in various capacities and pay them for their services, ignoring the rights of the owners and violating the law of the state.  They get information from them as to the political opinions and conduct of the owners, and in some instances arrests of citizens have been made and property been seized upon negro testimony.  

The soldiers go, without hesitation, into the kitchens among the negroes and encourage them to leave their owners.  Some of them have been seen promenading the streets with negro wenches.  

The inhabitants are filled with loathing and disgust by the presence of this pestilent army.  The disastrous effects of their conduct towards the slave population have been represented to Gen. [John G.] Parke, who has taken up his quarters here for the present.  He has promised to correct this evil; but does not do it.”

June 7, 1862:

“The mask, which concealed at first the hideous features of fanaticism, is now thrown off, and the conduct of the troops in reference to the slaves, has become alarming to the inhabitants.  Those fanatics feel a bitter hatred towards slaveholders, and the lying stories the slaves have told them of the cruelty of their owners has made their hatred stronger.  If any citizen were to chastise a disobedient slave, he would run the hazard of being mobbed by ruffianly soldiers.  If an owner attempts to recover a runaway slave, he runs the same risk.  Owners have permission to take their slaves wherever they find them, if they can do so without using forcible means.  If the slave is willing to go the owner can take him along with him.  If not the soldiers will interfere and protect the slave.  The consequence is very few runaways are recovered.  Citizens in search of their slaves have been threatened with violence and compelled to desist.”

December 1862:

“Our town is crowded with runaway negroes.  Not only the able bodied, but the lame, the halt, the blind and crazy, have poured in upon us, until every available habitation has been filled with them.  Even the Methodist Parsonage, and the Odd Fellows Lodge, have been desecrated in this way, and are now filled with gangs of these black traitors.”

January 1, 1863:

“This will long be remembered as the day on which Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation goes into operation … Many reflecting minds have for several months past looked forward to this day with deep concern, on account of the slave population in our midst.  They could hardly believe that so remarkable an epoch could arrive without producing some commotion among the negroes, some tumult, some shock to society.  That the shackles should suddenly fall from the hands of thousands of slaves, as silently as snowflakes fall upon the earth, and the slaves move on in their new atmosphere of freedom, with no signs of uproar, no fandangoes, no shouts, no jubilant songs to express their joy or insult their former owners, and with no more stir among them than might be produced on New Year’s Day, by a transfer from one set of masters to another, was not to be believed by any who knew what sudden emancipation once caused among this race in the Island of St. Domingo [Haiti].  Yet this is precisely the state of things we behold around us this day.  The Emancipation Proclamation has taken effect today and has sundered, so far as military law can do it, the bonds that united the slave to the master, without producing a ripple on the face of the waters.  This peaceful and quiet transition from slavery to freedom must find its explanation, to a great extent, in the fact that the Federal Army in this section of the state had long since, by their conduct towards the slaves, anticipated the Proclamation and virtually set them free.  Besides this, the slaves may not be entirely certain that their freedom is permanent, and may have some secret dread of the approach of Confederate power.”



Courtesy of Find-A-Grave

The original version of the Rumley diary is no longer available.  Judkin Browning edited the text for his book The Southern Mind Under Union Rule (2009) from published versions of the diary that had appeared in local Beaufort newspapers in 1910 and 1937 and from a transcript that exists in the North Carolina State Archives.  Rumley, who was born in 1812, lived until 1881, when he died at the age of 69. He was laid to rest at the Old Burying Ground in Beaufort where his headstone reads, “Faithful in all his trusts.”



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General Hunter “Confiscates” Prince Rivers http://housedivided.dickinson.edu/sites/emancipation/2012/11/08/general-hunter-confiscates-prince-rivers/ http://housedivided.dickinson.edu/sites/emancipation/2012/11/08/general-hunter-confiscates-prince-rivers/#comments Thu, 08 Nov 2012 16:30:32 +0000 http://housedivided.dickinson.edu/sites/emancipation/?p=936 Continue reading ]]> Prince Rivers (1822-1887)

Prince Rivers (1822-1887)

Congressional confiscation acts (August 6, 1861 and July 17, 1861) effectively freed thousands of slaves, including one remarkable black soldier in the Union army.  Prince Rivers, a former slave who became the color bearer of the 1st South Carolina Volunteers, received the following document from General David Hunter on August 1, 1862:

Headquarters, Department of the South

Port Royal, S.C.  August 1st, 1862

“The bearer, Prince Rivers, a sergeant in First Regiment S.C. Volunteers, late claimed as a slave, having been employed in hostility to the United States, is hereby agreeably to the law of 6th of August, 1861, declared free for ever.  His wife and children are also free.”


Maj.-Gen. Commanding

[Reprinted in Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper, August 30, 1862]

Hunter’s decision to attempt to use congressional confiscation policy to “free” Rivers and hundreds of other black men who had served in his black regiment was the result of a bitter controversy over whether or not he was properly authorized to employ black troops.  Historian Daniel W. Crofts deftly explains the firestorm over Hunter’s early (and stillborn) experiment in raising black troops in a recent post for the “Disunion” series by the New York Times.

Rivers, however, never regretted his unpaid service in “Hunter’s Regiment.”  On November 4, 1863, Rivers told a public gathering in Beaufort:

“Now we sogers are men –men de first time in our lives.  Now we can look our old masters in the face.  They used to sell us and whip us, and we did not dare say one word.  Now we ain’t afraid, if they meet us, to run the bayonet through them.”

[Source:  Leon Litwack, Been in the Storm So Long, p. 64; Report of the Proceedings of a Meeting Held at Concert Hall, Philadelphia, on Tuesday Evening, November 3, 1863, To Take Into Consideration The Condition of the Freed People of the South (Philadelphia, 1863), 22.  Full text of Rivers's speech, delivered in Beaufort on November 4, 1863 and as originally reported on November 9th by the New York Tribune, can be found at the Internet Archive here.

Henry Middleton Stuart (1803-1872)

Rivers had been a house servant and coachman for his master, Henry Middleton Stuart, Sr. (1803-1872) or H.M. Stuart.  The mistress at the Oak Point or Pages Point plantation (located in the Beaufort District by the Coosaw River) was Ann Hutson Means Stuart (1808-1862).  The Stuart’s children included Ann (1827-1905), Isabel (1831-1873), and Henry Jr. (or Hal) (1835-1915) who served as an officer (eventually captain) for the Beaufort Artillery Battery and later became a leading medical doctor in Beaufort. [Genealogy information on Stuarts comes from Frances Wallace Taylor, Catherine Taylor Matthews, and J. Tracy Powers, eds., The Leverett Letters:  Correspondence of a South Carolina Family, 1851-1868 (Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 2000).  After the war, Rivers tried to exact some measure of revenge by obtaining part of the Stuart plantation.  A letter he wrote to Union general Rufus Saxton in 1865 made the request:

Morris Island, South Carolina    November 26, 1865


I have the honor to ask for a understanding.  I was told that the Government has given Land to Soldiers. If this land were given will [it] be just for the time being or will [it] be hereafter held by the Soldiers? I would like very much to know if any Part of the Mainland.  If so I would like to get a piece on Mr. H.M. Stuart plantation, Oak Point, near Coosaw River.

Prince Rivers, Color and Provost Sergeant

[Source:  Dorothy Sterling, ed., The Trouble They Seen: The Story of Reconstruction in the Words of African Americans (New York: Doubleday, 1976), 37]

Col. Thomas Wentworth Higginson, who had commanded the First South Carolina Volunteers, wrote a  glowing profile of his men and Sergeant Rivers for the Liberator on February 24, 1865.  Higginson claimed, “There is not a white officer in this regiment who has more administrative ability” than Prince Rivers, adding, “No anti-slavery novel has described a man of such marked ability.”  About his color bearer, Higginson concluded, “if there should ever be a black monarchy in South Carolina, he will be its king.”

Rivers actually did become an important political leader in South Carolina during Reconstruction and played an especially pivotal role as a judge during the 1876 Hamburg Massacre.  His activities during the post-war period attracted a great deal of attention, including  this hostile portrait and this dismissive story from the Atlanta Constitution.  The story of Prince Rivers thus sadly embodies the glorious hope and the bitter betrayal of emancipation’s promise.  His triumphal moment on January 1, 1863 captured by Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper became his tragic inability as a beleaguered black Trial Justice to stave off violence in Hamburg, South Carolina during the 1876 campaign.


The Anderson (SC) Intelligencer carried a terse death notice for Rivers on April 28, 1887: “Prince Rivers, who was a leader among the negroes in radical times and prominent in the Hamburg riots, died in Aiken a few days ago.” The Watchman and Southron in Sumter, South Carolina added some additional details a few days later, noting that Prince Rivers had “died at his home in Aiken on Sunday, 10th inst. of Bright’s disease of the kidneys, in the sixty-fifth year of his age”  (May 4, 1887).  NOTE –Both  newspapers are available freely online from Chronicling America project sponsored by the Library of Congress and National Endowment for the Humanities.


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“Contraband” Remembers Summer of Emancipation http://housedivided.dickinson.edu/sites/emancipation/2012/11/07/contraband-remembers-lincolns-september-proclamation/ http://housedivided.dickinson.edu/sites/emancipation/2012/11/07/contraband-remembers-lincolns-september-proclamation/#comments Wed, 07 Nov 2012 14:39:39 +0000 http://housedivided.dickinson.edu/sites/emancipation/?p=897 Continue reading ]]>

During Christmas week in 1936, a ninety-two-year-old woman from Washington, D.C. created a local incident that drew the attention of the Washington Post.  The woman had walked a few miles out to the Soldiers’ Home, a federal retirement community for military veterans, a location that she considered the birthplace of emancipation.   Mrs. Thomas Chase, as the Washington Post called her in its subsequent report, was hoping to see the room where Lincoln reportedly drafted the Emancipation Proclamation.  Chase had once been a former slave named Anna Harrison from Caroline County, Virginia who had arrived in the capital in the spring of 1862 as a “contraband” or wartime fugitive.

“I used to see Mr. Lincoln almost every day riding out to the Soldiers’ Home that summer,” Anna Harrison Chase recalled for the startled reporter.  “Of course, we did not know what he was doing, but he was such a great man.  And I can remember how we laughed and cried when he set the slaves free.”

President Lincoln’s Cottage at the Soldiers’ Home

Local tradition maintained that President Lincoln wrote the September 22, 1862 proclamation announcing his emancipation policy at his cottage on the grounds of the Soldiers’ Home.  Scholars have since argued over that claim, but the former contraband believed it fiercely and wanted to see the room where Lincoln freed her people at least once before she died.

Anna Harrison had been 18 at the time her escape to freedom. “Our old master and missus were dead, and we heard that our young master had been killed in the war,” she recalled.  “So we hitched up the ox carts and I led my family away to the Free State” [meaning behind Union lines].  The family traveled by ox cart to Fredericksburg, Virginia and then by train to Washington.

Eventually, Anna Harrison married Thomas Chase who had been a slave in Annapolis, Maryland.  He was self-educated and became a noted member of the House of Delegates in the District of Columbia during the 1870s.  During the 1880s, he graduated from Howard University School of Law and became an attorney.   He died in 1905.  Anna H. Chase, known as “Mother Chase,” lived until 1938, just two years after her Christmas pilgrimage to the Soldiers’ Home.

Mother Chase’s journey to the Soldiers’ Home generated an admiring profile in the Sunday edition of the Washington Post on December 27, 1936.  The story began when the 92-year-old ex-slave startled the residents of the retirement community.  Former First Sergeant James Davidson, age 64, told the Post reporter, “Not many people come out here in the winter.”  But unlike many others, Anna Harrison Chase was determined to bear personal witness to what she considered the great act of American history.

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